SHELBY — Most kids don’t grow up wanting to be a funeral director. But most kids aren’t Jake Penwell.
As a kid attending St. Mary Catholic Elementary School in Shelby, Penwell remembers an early fascination with funerals – the ceremony, the cars in procession right before mass, the way everyone carried themselves. For most of his life, Penwell has known exactly what his dream job would be.
On Sept. 1, that dream came true when Penwell purchased the newly-named Penwell Turner Funeral Home from his employers, Bob and Catherine Turner. The official closing came after months of legal process, years of planning and half of Penwell’s life dedicated to serving families in the Shelby community alongside the Turners.
“We’re all called for something, God has made us all for something, and this is the straw that I drew,” Penwell said. “I don’t know any other way to put it.”
Planning for Penwell’s eventual purchase of Turner Funeral Home started on day one of his employment with Bob and Catherine Turner, as a 14-year-old kid in July 2004. His first encounter with Bob Turner came almost a year prior, on a job shadowing day with the Shelby Rotary Club in October 2003.
Penwell remembers being so enamored with the business, he pestered Bob for a job. Eventually he was hired to wash cars for the funeral home. He only washed two cars before Bob realized he had a knack for the business that would be wasted on a hose and a sponge.
It was a quality that Bob saw mirrored in himself, as a man who also knew he wanted to be a funeral director since the second grade. He attended St. John Central Catholic School for 12 years in Bellaire, Ohio, right next door to the town funeral home. While other kids were playing on the playground, he was watching the funerals.
“Jake is very impressionable right off the bat,” Bob Turner said. “I’ve been doing the job shadowing program for 30-something years, and he was by far the most interested, had the most personality, and was the most comfortable talking with adults.”
So Bob asked him – do you have a suit? No, he didn’t, but he could get one. Would he want to work a funeral the next day? Absolutely.
“I said then, he has too much personality to be washing cars, I’m going to make him the inside man,” Bob recalled. “From that point on he worked inside, he didn’t wash cars anymore.”
“And then Catherine this crazy lady, the first day I’m working the funeral she makes us stand by the car for a picture,” Penwell said. “And I’m thinking, this lady is nuts. But I love that picture now, it’s the coolest thing. I’m so glad she did it.”
From that moment on, the three became a working team. Outsiders always assumed the relationship was familial, a fact the trio finds laughable as Penwell easily towers over both Turners. But after the past 14 years, familial is exactly the word they would use to describe themselves.
“I’ve told people that I consider this an in-family transition,” Bob Turner said. “We’ve spent tons of time together the last 14 years.”
“We spend more time with Jake than we do our own kids,” added Catherine Turner.
Part of this is due to the odd hours required of a funeral director. Normal working hours are kept at Turner Funeral Home, but Penwell and the Turners are also on call 24/7, ready to serve families as soon as possible after a death occurs.
“It’s very unique for an employee and employer to work that closely together, but at the same time Bob and Catherine have taught by example,” Penwell said. “They’ve never asked me to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. I think it shows we do everything together as a team.”
This close working relationship also allowed for a much more seamless transition in leadership. Since Penwell was around 16 years old, the Turners have been talking about one day passing the torch to their protégé. It became a commitment when Penwell started full-time at the funeral home after his graduation from the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science.
“I’ve seen other funeral homes and businesses not plan adequately for succession,” Bob Turner said. “I didn’t want that to happen here, so I wanted people to expect that he would be my successor for his own success. That’s the most important thing to me.”
The Turners purchased the funeral home from the Dye family on Sept. 1, 1984, when Bob Turner was 29 years old. They sold the funeral home to 28-year-old Penwell on Sept. 1, 2018 – exactly 34 years later.
The selling dates aren’t the only fortuitous coincidence. The Turners can still remember the first woman they buried after purchasing the funeral home – the last person they buried before selling it was that woman’s daughter.
“She was the very first person who gave me a chance, and coincidentally her daughter was our very last funeral,” Bob Turner said. “She lived away for many years and came back because of the relationship we built with their family.”
“That part was emotional for us,” said Catherine Turner.
But one chapter closing makes room for another to start. Penwell recalls the feeling of relief upon finally signing the papers making the funeral home his own – the end of a very long saga.
“I was amazed at when we got back from our closing and pulled into the parking lot, how different I felt,” he said. “I can’t describe it, but it was like everything looked different to me.”
“Yeah you noticed the peeling paint,” Bob said, prompting a big laugh.
“But it did feel different,” Penwell added. “It feels real.”
Not much has changed in the day-to-day life at the business, now officially named the Penwell Turner Funeral Home. The dream team is still together – just because they sold the business doesn’t mean the Turners plan on retiring any time soon.
“I really don’t know what I would do with myself,” Catherine joked.
But now the weight of being a small business owner falls squarely on Penwell’s shoulders. That means worrying about growing the business, planning for his own future successor, and making sure his new employees get paid on time.
“Not that it terrifies me, but there are things that I didn’t have to worry about before,” Penwell said. “Now it’s truly my financial responsibility and my personal obligation that the house is cared for the way it’s been cared for, the families are served the way they’re supposed to be served – everything is truly under my charge now. It’s just a different feeling.”
Still, Penwell describes it as a “good stress.” After all, he truly does have his dream job – the only job he’s ever wanted.
“We sell a service, we sell a product, but the true thing that people buy from us is our relationship with them,” Penwell said. “It’s the best part of this business, hands down: making people feel the most comfortable they can feel at a time when they feel the most uncomfortable.
“It’s about a love for people, a genuine caring for helping people, and creating a relationship that will last for years to come. That feeling is irreplaceable.”